By on January 14, 2010

the most american vehicle ever?

Wow! History in the making here: my all-time favorite car and truck in the same week on Curbside Classics. I wouldn’t have guessed Edward would chose to do a Truck Thursday, but he’s the boss, so I’m pulling out all my stops. I’ve been collecting “Advanced Design” Chevys all year, but this is my favorite. And this truck is the archetype of all pickups, in all its simple but beautiful essence. So given the fact that full-size pickups are the best selling vehicle, and this is the mother of all post-war trucks, perhaps the title should read: The Most American Vehicle Ever.

on the job site ready to work

If you grew up in the fifties or sixties, this truck is probably deeply ingrained into your memory banks. We moved to Iowa in 1960, and these were everywhere, still hard at work on the small family farms of the time. The facts are that Chevy was the number one seller back than, but I suspect it was by a large margin, because Fords, Dodges and Internationals just weren’t anywhere near as ubiquitous as these. And that’s carried forward through the decades to today.

load 'er up

When I moved back to Iowa in the early seventies, the kids were all buying them for peanuts from the retiring farmers. At the time when Dylan and Rock was all going country, this was the cool ride to just be seen in or for hauling a load of manure to the organic garden. The placid hum of their 216 cubic inch “stovebolt” sixes was as much a part of the aural background then as Working Man’s Dead. Only once did I hear that venerable motor being abused beyond belief, and I won’t soon forget that:

timelessly simple yet elegant

When we lived a few blocks from the Pacific in Santa Monica in the late seventies, there was a rather volatile young couple who had two of these as well as a small Chevy school bus of the same vintage that they lived in part of the year. They rented a garage facing the alley behind our apartment building where they spent the winters, in the garage that is (they were ahead of their times that way). One night I heard the distinctive sound of a stovebolt six running wide open in first gear, its rpm only limited by valve float. The young woman was repeatedly driving the tortured Chevy up and down the alley, and every time she passed the garage, the guy would throw a piece of their furniture out in front of the truck, in a vain attempt to stop it. The combination of cracking wood and the wailing Chevy bumping over mattresses, dressers and chairs are seared into my memory. Eventually, she tired of pounding her furniture into a pulp and drove off, the screaming Chevy slowly melding into the background noise. There was quite a mess in the alley the next morning.

visibility and room circa '51

The point I was trying to make was that these old trucks are hard to stop or kill, even in the most trying of domestic circumstances. And rust-free Chevys of this vintage were easy and cheap picking in the agricultural valleys of California until well into the eighties. And now: well, I’ve got about a half a dozen of them in my files, but have yet to find one Ford or Dodge of this vintage on the streets. So what made these trucks so wonderful, venerable and indestructible, even in the face of a determined hurler of furniture?

In an interesting preview of GM’s future priorities, the Chevy (and GMC) “Advanced Design” trucks were GM’s first all-new post-was vehicles. They arrived in June 1947, over a year before the new ’49 Chevy cars. It was a dramatic improvement over its predecessor; cute as the thirties pickups were, their cabs were claustrophobic and lacked visibility. Not so with our featured truck, which has the optional rear-quarter windows. And the cabs were wide enough for three guys whose bodies still reflected a pre-Big-Gulp diet and physical work.

an honest face

They were built right through into 1955, with just minimal changes. If my source is correct, this is a ’51 by virtue of having the vent windows (new for that year), but not having the push-button door handles that came in ’52. For that matter, this is a late ’51, because it has eight boards in the bed instead of nine. Not that it matters that much to me, but I don’t want to let the historians down.

Chevy’s engine didn’t need to be redone though; the venerable 92 hp 216 cubic inch OHV six had been around since 1937, and was a well-proven lump, despite its primitive non-fully pressurized lubrication system. It churned out a steady flow of torque right from idle speed, as I well remember as a ten year-old driving one on the Mennonite farm where I spent my youthful summers. I was used to dumping the clutch on the Farmalls, and the Chevy took it just as well. It was hard to give it gas and let out the clutch simultaneously while practically standing up to see over the dash and hood.

wood, for better or for worse, mainly

I could go on all day waxing and reminiscing about these old Chevys, but the blogosphere isn’t conducive to that. This won’t be the last old Chevy truck I post, so we’ll save some of it for then. And you probably have plenty of good stuff to add. In case you’re wondering why I drive a ’66 Ford F-100 instead of one of these, just look in the bed: I don’t feel like replacing rotted wood boards, or raising splinters with my shovel on them. But in the Niedermeyer Fantasy Garage, there’s a space for this truck waiting, and in exactly this condition: enough patina to show that it hasn’t forgotten what it was made to do: work.

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23 Comments on “Curbside Classic: My All-Time Favorite Truck – 1951 Chevrolet...”


  • avatar
    levi

    Keep posting shit like this and I’ll have to start liking you, Paul!

    THIS is professional grade…

  • avatar
    Andy D

    When I was  akid my parents had  a 49 and a 54 Suburban.  Same chassis with a coach  body. Bone simple , my 15 yr  old   brother replaced the clutch and ground  the valves on the 54′s 235 I 6 . I had  a 47 GMC PU and a 49 GMC panel truck . I really  miss the 47 .

  • avatar
    Juniper

    Beautiful truck. Great quarter windows.
    A friend had a similar one in the early  70s
    Mine was a 50 Ford F-1. Same deal but it had a not that good flathead inline 6. Ended up putting a 50 olds and a crash box 4 spd in it. Loved it. As basic as it gets.

  • avatar
    nikita

    Grandpa had one of these on his apple farm in Northern California.  It was red, oxidized to pink in the same way as the pictured truck is light blue.  It was a 1953 3600 series (3/4 ton) with the long bed and those deluxe corner windows.  It even had the (non working) factory push button tube radio. That picture of the interior sure brings back memories. I see it still has the original, non-butchered radio delete piece. Note the starter pedal next to the gas pedal.  I first learned about non-syncro first gear driving it.  We had stake sides on it and loaded it high with apple crates. When not working, we rode in the back, before there were laws against that sort of thing.  92hp was gross. I remember the data plate said 85hp net.
    ’53 was the last year of the 216 and split windsheld, so the ’54 was a bit of an oddity.

    • 0 avatar
      Lumbergh21

      My grandfather had a 1958 fleetside, and one month before he succumbed to cancer, he gave it to me.  I have a lot of fond memories of going camping in Northern Claifornia in that wonderful truck.  It means more to me than I can say.

  • avatar
    baabthesaab

    So well I remember these trucks! Very modern compared with my ’36, and, all the way, a truck. It was all about torque in those days. They didn’t necessarily go fast, but they went. And they took their load. 900 lbs of animal feed in one of these was a slow trip home from the feed store, but you ALWAYS completed the trip. Does anyone remember the 1-ton variant with the 9-foot bed?! A neighbor still has one. What a truck! I love my ’36 and use my ’04, but would love to add one of these.

  • avatar
    Jeffer

    My best friend’s Dad had a blue ’51 without the quarter windows. He would take us out fishing on his cabin cruiser, and the ride out to and back from the marina was in this truck, in the back. Wind in the hair, no seatbelts, what fantastic memories!

  • avatar
    esldude

    My dad had one of these when I was in 2nd grade (mid 1960′s).  Unusual because a farmer had bought it and died the following month.  A son covered the exterior in grease to preserve it and put it in an enclosed barn.  Finally they pulled it out and sold it.  Had 800 miles on it.
    Needed surprisingly little.  Set of tires and exhaust.  Once clean of the grease paint and interior were like new.  Was black with the quarter windows and heater, but no radio.  Close as you would get to having a new one.
    My dad would pick me up at school each day in that truck.  Some kids might have been thinking they would look better in some fancy car.  But I guess I picked up on my Dad’s pride in having a new 1951 Chevy in 1966, because I always thought we were special getting to have that new/old truck.  He drove it for most of a year, and someone offered him double what he paid so he sold it.  Now he did take that money and buy a ’59 Corvette so it wasn’t really a bad move.

  • avatar
    MadHungarian

    OH.  YEAH.  Paul, I can see we think alike.  I don’t there has been a better looking pickup truck since.  GM nailed this one.  It somehow looks exactly like a truck is SUPPOSED to look like.   And that “Like a Rock”  Chevy truck ad campaign shoulda been used for these.

    Sadly, only in the rust-free West do you still see honest hard working examples like this one.  Most of the east coast survivors have been streetrodded within an inch of their lives.

    A ’49 Chevy pickup was one of The Ones That Got Away in my youth.  When I was in high school (mid 70′s), friends of my grandmom lived out in the sticks.  A green ’49 lived in their barn.  It was only used on the property so had not been tagged in years, but it ran and drove fine.  I really, really wanted that truck and probably could have talked them out of it (they were thinking about moving anyway).  Dad was, of course, appalled and was having no truck with that idea, so to speak.  Damn . . . .

  • avatar

    It certainly is a spectacular piece of commercial art. Although it’s odd to think of it that way. I can’t think of a better looking truck in that class (although there are some damn good looking trucks in the highway hauler class, but I do’nt think the two classes are directly comparable). The flag on the antenna is a nice touch.
    These things were also very durable, especially for their era. I bet the designers were proud of their work in a way they probably haven’t been since some time in  the ’70s. What a shame.

  • avatar
    cstoc

    Our family car in the early 60′s was a green 1959 Chevy truck.  The front end styling was not as clean as this one, but it was otherwise similar.  Same wooden bed, same starter pedal and 3-on-the-tree tranny and I6 engine.  Our family of 5 fit in that seat and we kids loved it.  In the early 70′s we had a 1967 Chevy stepside short bed (4-spd w/granny and 327 V8).  That was a great truck, too.  I love old Chevy trucks.

  • avatar
    Canucknucklehead

    I love this site and the writing that goes on it, really good stuff. Almost as interesting is the comments that are posted here, very informative and in good humour. I look forward to such articles at the end of my day.

  • avatar

    Also my all-time favorite, Paul.  Back in the 1980s – during my teenage years – my father did frame-off restorations of three different Advanced Design Chevy pickups.  Two of them went on to become AACA Seniors, and one was an AACA Grand National Winner.  The third was at least as nice as the first two, but he sold it before ever showing it.  The first was a ’49, the next a ’52, and the third a ’50.  The restorations were his winter project during the slow car-selling months.

    One tidbit about these trucks is that the reason most unrestored examples that you see are dark green is that green was the standard color (in a Henry Ford/Model T black sort of way).  If you wanted a different color, you had to pay.  As the trucks had no paint code documentation as do newer cars, all three of my dad’s trucks went from green to red.  The red that he chose was the original optional color, and happens to be the same color used by Coca Cola on their trucks to this day.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Is the  nostalgia for this  truck why I see so many  of  the retro panel trucks running around?  Their  name escapes me.

  • avatar
    FromBrazil

    Hey Mr. Paul!

    It’s a little known fact, but the first car built in Brazil was this one. It even got a new name, it was called Chevy Brasil!

    Some people think the first car built in Brazil was the Beetle. Nope, it was just that it was the first car built under Juscelino Kubitscheck new rules that effectively launched the car industry in Brazil. But even VW built some Kombis (VW Buses) before those rules were in place. But, before those rules, if you take into account what many would consider a “Brazilian” car, one whose majority of parts was built locally, well then this is it. The first Brazilian car. The Chevrolet Brasil.

    Of course, if you don’t consider all that, the first car maker on Brazilian soil was Ford. They built, or rather assembled, the Ford Model T (completely CKD) in the 20s. As an  interesting consequence, until this day, in Brazilian Portuguese parlance, most people refer to car makers are called “montadoras”, which translates as assemblers. Consequence of that old Model T, which gained a nickname down here and will forever be called as “Ford de bigode”, or Ford with a moustache or whiskers (due to the placement of the levers on the sterring wheel)>

  • avatar

    Andy, I believe you are referring to the HHR.  That and the Chevy SSR pickup were both inspired by the design of these trucks.  The SSR was obviously the closest to the original in concept and execution, but still didn’t quite hit the mark IMO.

    My dad owned an ’03 SSR as well, years after he sold his last old Chevy pickup.

  • avatar
    fincar1

    I knew several people who had trucks of this body style, and two of them used the pickup as their regular transportation, ages before that became common. Both of them were blue too, and it does seem to me as though most of the ones I saw in western WA were blue.
    One good story involving this design of Chevy; one of my dad’s dozer operators ran a few head of beef, and one day when Ed had butchered a beef, he used his old blue Chevy to haul the guts to the dump. Unfortunately  when he pulled out to cross the highway he got T-boned, spinning the truck and splattering beef guts everywhere. The state trooper who responded was a young guy, and Ed said the first thing he did was to heave, having made an incorrect assumption as to the source of the offal.

  • avatar
    NickR

    Where did the big red truck go?

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    If you want to see lots of old Chevy “Stovebolt” trucks, check out the galleries at Stovebolt.com.  I think they include trucks up through the mid-sixties.  You might be able to find some owners in your neck of the woods on that site as well.

  • avatar
    russification

    a good hotrod candidate….
    the only problem with light trucks is the positioning of the rear glass panel to the back of the drivers head, which probably wasnt a problem back when these were originally issued, now, one tap from behind can really hurt, unless you drive around with a crash helmet on….

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    I had one of these as a daily driver as recently as ~2000. Neat old truck. 100% stock except the white spoke 4WD wheels. Not raised. Needed kingpins badly. Drove it 6-7 miles each way to work and all over town. Drove it ~100 over the TN mtns to Chattanooga and back. It really wasn’t well suited to highway work. No seatbelts, no brakes (got hot easily), kingpins worn, low gears, only three gears too. Still the 50 year old engine did very well. Drove it to town several times with our first born child in his childseat lashed to the seat frame in the center with myself crammed into the driver’s side and my bride in the passenger side. Yep, they didn’t use child restraints in those days… He was as safely lashed and we were going slow.

    I wanted to keep it but we wanted a nicer house so away it went to NY State. My motorcycle to someone else.

    If I kept it the truck needed the gas tank relocated outside of the cab under the bed for safety’s sake and the kingpin job. I would have considered a four speed tranny, a higher rear end gear and better -maybe still drums- brakes.

    Nothing wrong with these old trucks though. Perfectly good tools. Makes me wonder why we need such large powerful trucks today though.

    My father has a streerodded example in his garage and we have another project ’50/235 c.i. in a barn. I hope I get to it before he does. I’d like another antique truck with some of the hidden upgrades listed above.


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